Coronavirus Ireland: Leo Varadkar says close contact schoolchildren may be sent antigen tests as Taoiseach dismisses new lockdowns

The National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) will re-consider the issue of contact tracing as Tánaiste Leo Varadkar has said that children in classrooms without symptoms of Covid, but who are close contacts of a confirmed case, may be sent antigen tests to use at home.

here were another 2,605 confirmed cases of Covid-19 in Ireland today, the highest since mid-Janary. There are currently 487 people in hospital with Covid, of whom 99 are in ICU.

It comes as Taoiseach Micheál Martin ruled out new ‘circuit breaker’ lockdowns despite concern over growing cases in schools, with Dr Ronan Glynn saying children’s extra-curricular and social activities should be curtailed.

And it also comes as a teacher union repeated calls for contact tracing and testing in primary schools to resume.

The Tánaiste said he did not want to see a return to a situation where children who are close contacts are sent home for 10 days as this was “very disruptive”.

He said that antigen tests may be rolled out to schools in a way where asymptomatic children in a pod with a confirmed case will be sent antigen tests.

A PCR test with the HSE may be offered if a child is symptomatic for Covid-19.

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“One of the things that Nphet is going to give consideration to now is whether we need to look again at the issue of contact tracing because if somebody is a close contact of somebody who has Covid and they’re not in school they will be offered a PCR test if they’re positive and an antigen test if they’re not,” he said.

“And it may be the case that we might have to apply that to schools as well, but that wouldn’t necessarily mean every child in the class being tested, but it might mean kids in a pod for example.

“So if one kid gets infected then it might make sense to test all the kids in the pod as well using rapid test,” he told reporters in Mullingar.

He said that sending home children who are close contacts is “larger than necessary”.

“But what we don’t want to go back to is children being excluded from school for ten days because that was very disruptive and larger than necessary because the vast majority of them didn’t have Covid,” he added.

His comments follow weeks of speculation that antigen testing may or may not be rolled out in classrooms.

They also appear to contradict statements front he HSE National Lead for Testing and Tracing Niamh O’Beirne, who has said that there is insufficient international evidence to support the use of antigen testing in schools.

It comes as the HSE begins to send out rapid home antigen tests to vaccinated close contacts of confirmed Covid cases, rather than sending them for a PCR test with the HSE. If the antigen test is positive, they should then go for a PCR test.

Unvaccinated close contacts must still have a PCR test in the first instance.

Meanwhile, the Taoiseach has dampened any ideas of a “circuit-breaker” or any other new restrictions because of Covid-19 amid concern as cases rise among schoolchildren.

And despite a warning from a World Health Organisation chief that Ireland may need local lockdowns if infections keep rising, and questions whether extra-curricular and social activities for children should be curtailed, Micheál Martin indicated matters would stay as they are for now.

This afternoon, a primary teachers’ union also called for contact tracing and testing of close contacts to resume in primary schools.

In a statement, John Boyle, the chief executive of the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation said the INTO was concerned that the number of primary children testing positive has increased by nearly 50pc since the beginning of October.

“We believe that the decision to end contact tracing and testing in schools was premature and we reiterate our call that public health should recommence testing, tracing and risk assessments in primary schools,” Mr Boyle said.

Today, the Taoiseach insisted there would not be an extended mid-term break, and the Government is intent on “keeping the schools open,” he said, despite evidence of an increase in infection among children at primary level in particular. “No consideration” was being given to more days off for pupils, he said, answering media questions at UCD.

On Wednesday, Dr David Nabarro, the UN’s special envoy on Covid, expressed concern as our seven-day moving average had trebled to more than 2,000 cases in three weeks, and told Newstalk that local restrictions could be needed “if there is a big spike in cases”, but not a countrywide lockdown.

Asked today if he could guarantee a “meaningful Christmas”, a phrase he used last year, the Taoiseach told there were no guarantees with Covid and he could offer none. Nothing was being ruled out.

The Government “has always taken public health advice,” he added, noting that the European Medicines Agency has not yet come forward with advice on the matter.

It was a similar case with calls for booster shots to be offered immediately to frontline healthcare staff as hospitals dread being overwhelmed this winter. A recommendation had been sought from the National Immunisation Advisory Council (Niac), and was awaited, he said.

On the spike in five to 12 year olds, Mr Martin said the information from Nphet was that “a lot of the transmission was in the community”. It was not a “slam-dunk” conclusion that transmission was happening within schools. “Nphet have always been consistent in saying schools are paramount in our society, and we have always taken public health advice,” he added, ruling out any closure moves or extended breaks.

The Government had not received any specific advice in relation to the recent upsurge, but it would echo the Nphet appeal for people to return to the basics of hand-washing, social-distancing and the wearing of face coverings, he said, while anyone not fully vaccinated was being encouraged to achieve that status.

He added: “We have received no advice in relation to children’s indoor sports. And I think that, by the nature of our weather, you are going to get far more [children’s] indoor sports in the coming weeks.

“I would be concerned about the mental wellbeing of children. It is very important. We have concerns about how the whole Covid situation is adding to their anxieties.”

Mr Martin said the booster vaccination programme for older people was going ahead and would open for the over-60s next week. It remained Government advice to people to take the jab, he said, after being asked about low uptake rates among Eastern European workers in Ireland. He said he understood certain demographic cohorts have reservations for particular reasons, some cultural and some historical.

The Taoiseach also insisted no one is being treated like ‘dirt’ in the reopening of Irish society and commerce in the pandemic.

He rejected a complaint last week from the chairman of the Licensed Vintners Association, Noel Anderson, who said that they had had two years of being treated like dirt, using a cruder word than ‘dirt’.

The LVA leader had been complaining about changes being announced by Culture Minister Catherine Martin before a delayed meeting with the sector had begun. And the comment came before the announcement the next day that advance-purchase tickets would be needed to enter nightclubs.

The Government is due to publish regulations today that will make it clear that tickets will have to be purchased electronically an hour before attending nightclubs this weekend. The sector has dismissed the rules as unworkable and likely to contribute to the continuation of the huge queues seen last weekend.

Mr Martin said people should moderate their language in airing criticisms.

The Government has been extremely supportive of the industry, and a lot of people within it had said that to him, the Taoiseach said. “We need balance here,” he said.

Mr Martin said however that he “understands the frustrations and the anger, of course – if you’re in business, you want to open your business, with the people you have. But right throughout the pandemic our objective has been to keep businesses intact, through the various supports such as EWSS. We need to try and ease economic pressures on the sector. And that’s what we said yesterday.”

The Taoiseach resisted commenting on Ms Martin, the Green Party culture minister with responsibility for the rules, and refused to say whether he had discussed the matter with her.

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